Starved of white voters, Tuesday night was 2010 redux for Democrats

For Democrats in Georgia, the most disturbing facet of Tuesday night was – despite the millions of dollars poured into the effort, despite the recruitment of talented well-spoken candidates – how much the end result seemed to resemble the Roy Barnes race of 2010.

Barnes won 43 percent of the vote four years ago. Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter each took 45 percent. Victory margins for senator-to-be David Perdue and second-term Gov. Nathan Deal were an identical 53 percent.

DuBose Porter, the chairman of the state Democratic party, was clearly baffled last night. “I can’t think of one. When you have great candidates that offer a better path, I don’t know how we could’ve said it any clearer, “ he told the AJC's Katie Leslie last night.

In his march to victory, Senator-elect Perdue, had his best showing (84 percent of the vote) in Pierce County, which has a white voting population of 83 percent. He did worst (15 percent) in Clayton County, which has a white voting population of 14 percent.

Consider these two paragraphs from an Associated Press exit poll assessment of Georgia:

RACE: The racial split remains one of the starkest divides in Georgia politics. Early exit poll results showed Perdue won about 70 percent of the white electorate. Nunn appeared to win the overwhelming majority of black voters.

OBAMA: A voter’s view on President Obama was a good indicator of how he or she voted in the Senate race. Nunn won more than nine out of 10 voters who approved of Obama’s job performance. Perdue did almost as well among voters who disapproved.

Actually, there’s evidence that Tuesday’s racial split may have run deeper than exit polls indicated.

An old Democratic hand called in the base calculations early this morning – finer stuff will have to wait until we see crosstabs. The news organizations that paid for that information are still holding it close.

But assume that African-American turnout was 30 percent, and the Nunn/Carter ticket received 95 percent of that vote. That brings Democrats up to 28.5 percent. Then be generous and assume that Democrats and Republicans evenly split a 4 percent Asian/Hispanic vote. You’re up to 30.5 percent for Democrats.

We know that white voters made up a tad under 58 percent of registered voters, but let’s assume – as the better-than-expected margins for Republicans indicate – a larger turnout of 64 percent.

Your algebraic/political formula becomes this: 30.5 + (64 x Democratic share of white vote) = 45.

The answer, under those calculations, is that Democrats won approximately 23 percent of the white vote on Tuesday night. Which is about what Roy Barnes did in 2010. Nunn and Carter needed 30 percent of the white vote to be viable.

For a party whose viability is based on a biracial coalition, that’s a serious chasm -- not just for 2016, but 2018 as well.

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Tuesday's 49.79 percent turnout, GOP number-cruncher Chip Lake tells us, was 15,973 votes lower than in 2010.

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Lake also explains why David Perdue spent so much time downstate. Georgia can be divided into 11 media markets for TV ads. In 10 of those, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate outperformed Mitt Romney in 2012 and Nathan Deal in 2010.

In only one market did Perdue fail to reach that bar: Metro Atlanta, where his overall margin dropped to 51.3 percent. The metro ATL market reaches 69 percent of voters. If there’s a bright spot for Democrats, a ledge they can cling to, it’s that.

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Our AJC colleague Aaron Gould Sheinin reports that Team Nunn was stunned by Tuesday's results. His report:

While unwilling to talk on the record so soon, their initial reactions Tuesday night varied from “Republican wave” to the deep distrust of President Barack Obama and soon-to-be-former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“From the beginning, the constant drum beat has been ‘Harry Reid, Harry Reid, Harry Reid,’” one Nunn insider, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said.

As soon as the GOP nomination was settled, the names “Harry Reid” and “Barack Obama” were hung around Nunn’s neck like a two-headed albatross. She couldn’t get out from under it, her team said.

The night fell like dominoes. Counties she needed to dominate she didn’t. Counties she needed to be competitive in, she wasn’t. Once the networks started calling the race, the outcome was as inevitable as the dew.

Another Nunn confidant said the outcome would appear to also show the need for a serious review of polling in Georgia. No poll had Perdue reaching 50 percent, much less the 53 percent he was pulling around 12:30 a.m. Landmark Communications’ final poll, which put Perdue at 49.8 change, came closest, considering the 2.5 percentage point margin of error.

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About that polling: Perdue's chief consultant, Paul Bennecke, said their internal numbers lined up with what happened on Election Day -- again. So chalk up a win for Chris Perkins of Washington-based Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research.

Bennecke had some choice words for the other guys:

"I don’t know what else to say except every poll had us losing the runoff except our polls. And then it was the same thing in the general election where we were up 10 and then we collapsed down to 5 and we were still up 5 and everybody like [Matt] Towery and Landmark and all them ... when they were showing us down 2 or 3, we were up 5. And then in the last 12 days we went from 5 to 8.

"And that’s almost identical to what happened in the runoff, where everybody was showing us losing by 4 to 6 and our poll, internal had us up 2. We ended up winning by 2. I mean, the amount of time and energy that goes into a real poll and the structure they you put in making sure you’re getting the best data possible.

"There are a lot of pretend pollsters in Georgia, that’s all I’m gonna say. They don’t know what they’re doing. They get a phone list. They do a bunch of random phone calls. They try to weight it based on what they think is right, then they throw it up on paper and say, ‘Here’s what it is.’ That’s not how our polling operation worked."

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Let the jockeying begin. Those down-ballot GOP officials who were all smiles last night on stage together could soon be all-out rivals in the race to replace Gov. Nathan Deal in four years.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Attorney General Sam Olens are all said to be considering a run for the big job in 2018. Ditto for U.S. Reps. Austin Scott and Lynn Westmoreland. Talk in Republican circles is that former Florida Rep. Allen West is looking to move here, and could have another bid for office in mind -- like maybe U.S. Senate. (Though remember, West shot down such talk two years ago when he told us "I'm not an NFL free agent.")

And on the Democratic side, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and state Rep. Scott Holcomb could all be top contenders. And there's no telling whether this year's nominees, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, have any appetite for a repeat run. But their resounding defeats make Reed, who is leading the Hillary Clinton presidential effort in Georgia, the party's de facto leader.

All of this behind-the-scenes maneuvering could be a reason why Sen. Johnny Isakson is aggressively readying his re-election bid. He told us the bumper stickers are already ready - some staffers are already sporting them on their cars - and he will soon make a formal announcement that he'll run again in 2016.

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If Casey Cagle does run for office, expect to hear this: Aside from a way-down-ballot Public Service Commission race (where a Democrat didn't even bother to run), the Other Gainesville Republican was the GOP's leading vote-getter.

He tallied 1.46 million votes, possibly a credit to a positive ad campaign in the race's final weeks. Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black was a few thousand votes behind him.

If he ran and won in four years, he would also break a glass ceiling of sorts: The state's first hipster governor.

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Here's an election night quirk: The polls, the analysts and even the campaigns believed that David Perdue would lag behind Gov. Nathan Deal, if only for the sheer amount of money spent targeting Perdue's business record.

Yet the former Fortune 500 chief executive earned about 13,000 votes more than the Republican.

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The mood was festive in Perdue-land last night as staffers and supporters reveled in the big win.

Among the biggest grins was on U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who held court with reporters, introduced Perdue on stage and lingered long into the night. He was a man at ease. Asked whether the night was bittersweet, he laughed at the question:

"No. Listen, best decision I made was to look at life after the Senate two years ago and say now‘s the time for me to go. I’m on top, and we’re going out on my terms and you don’t always get to do that in politics. I’m happy with my decision. My health is good, my energy level is good, and we’re looking forward to life after the Senate."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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